Growing up, music was a big deal in our house.
Our living room, for example, was dominated by a console stereo system that provided AM/FM tuning, a turntable and a storage slot for 33 1/3 rpm records. All this high-fi technology was encased in a cabinet that, as a child, appeared to me to be the size of a shipping crate.
And as I recall, that stereo was prioritized as a family purchase before funds were allotted in the family budget for a color television set.
So clearly, my parents valued music in the home above the ability to watch The Wonderful World of Color in color.
At Christmastime, there were two milestones in the sounds that issued forth from its fabric-covered speakers.
The first came early December, when my parents authorized the playing of our family’s collection of Christmas albums.
Given the vast array of Christmas recordings and our parents’ appreciation of music, you would think we would be chock-full of Christmas-on-vinyl delights. But unless my memory fails, there were really only a handful:
We had the Harry Simeone Chorale Little Drummer Boy album; two recordings of Christmas classics played on organ (one was a mighty pipe organ, the other was a warbling Hammond – definitely higher on the cheese factor); and a collection album from WT Grant, which provided a sampling of songs from vocal stars of the 1960s, such as Robert Goulet, Mahalia Jackson, Steve Lawrence and Anita Bryant.
The Simeone recording had the title track that everyone knows, but beyond that, there were real gems here.
One of the cuts was a quick-tempo, rhythmic riff on the “Hallelujah Chorus,” sung entirely by the men’s half of the chorus and accompanied by blaring brass. I also loved the arrangement of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” whose intro was a whistled solo above lush strings. And one of the songs, “Every Christmas Is a Birthday,” had special meaning to me because of the December 27 date of my own entry into the world.
The Grant album was another winner. How I loved Johnny Mathis’ “Silver Bells,” with its gentle “Silent Night” countermelody woven in. And for some reason, the rendition of “Jingle Bells,” sung by Jim Nabors, always made me smile, if for no other reason than the inclusion of a little-known, seldom-recorded verse.
The organ albums were a mixed bag, but a highlight for me was a song called “The March of the Three Kings.”
By Christmas Eve, our affection for these albums began to wane from being overplayed. So late that afternoon, when the local easy-listening station flipped the switch to an all-Christmas format, we welcomed the variety.
Many of my memories of that marathon of merry music are of their accompaniment to the last of our last Christmas preparations before the big day. When Santa still came to the house, that meant it was the soundtrack to our hanging of the stockings before retiring to bed. When I was older, it meant something to hum or sing to while putting the final touches on our tree and the vintage trains – and tiny village – that surrounded it.
And more often than not, Mom was pulling the last of the Christmas cookie batches out of the oven.
Thanks to the digital age, I’ve now got nearly 500 Christmas songs on a mega-playlist on my iPod.And fortunately, they include many of those cherished tracks from the days when the sounds of Christmas included the hiss of a needle finding a groove on a record album, filling a home with glory and glee.